Tag Archives: puppy training

When so much is expected – Focus on the butterflies

Argos taking a break from his daily training (c) Donatella Lorch

Argos has proved he can outsmart me. I’ve been trying to teach my five-month-old, 60lbs Rhodesian Ridgeback ‘recall.’ That’s when you call your dog and he happily stops what he is doing – chasing a cat or running after a car or jumping up on the Amazon delivery man, and enthusiastically runs back to you. Just like in the movies.  Argos however has a tendency for selective response. On a recent morning, walking off lede, he took off at a zooming gallup and, oblivious of my call, he jumped into a nearby pond’s reeds and disappeared. He then re-emerged violently shaking his head, his teeth clamped on the neck of a very dead duck. He not only did not come when summoned, but he spent the next half hour evading my efforts at capture.

There must be another duck out there (c) Donatella Lorch

Dog trainers agree ‘recall’ is the hardest order to teach and the most critical. Most advise to hook the collar to a long lede then call him and gently tug him rewarding him with treats when he returns. Resilient ‘recall’ can take months of training. I started working in a meadow with Argos on a 30-foot lede. We saw geese, a rabbit, and all sorts of flying insects. Twice Argos took off but returned with a call, a gentle tug and a small piece of cheese. But then, whenever I hooked him to the lede, he just sat by my side. He had in his own way taught me my most important lesson: training a dog goes beyond a list of repeated techniques.

There isn’t a day that I don’t question my ability to successfully train Argos. He can be a devoted angel, with a pro ‘heel’ on our morning walk only to metamorphose into a snipping, whirling, leaping brown blur. Some days, he lets me jump over him as he lies down immobile. Other times, he digs in his heels and refuses to follow me on leash or nips my calves. It is exhausting. For me and probably also for Argos.

I know I have a narrow window for basic training. Around his sixth month – thats next week – he becomes a teenager, a metamorphose that lasts for another year or more. That’s when ignoring commands becomes a skill. Ridgebacks lose the desire to listen and cooperate. Ridgeback males can hit 100lbs as adults. They are stubborn and strong. A lunge on leash can pull you to the ground. For several weeks now, I’ve been feeling that I am trying too hard, wanting too much, stuck in a rut of my creation. The COVID puppy boom has booked in-person dog trainers for the next year.  Facebook floods my feed with smiling, energetic and magical trainers that promise to teach behavior techniques that – at a price – will  deliver a perfect pet. Even The Wall Street Journal has become a financially-focused canine expert.

Puppies are apparently not trained in utero to appreciate the wonders of the loose leash. Argos took to the leash with the speed and strength of a lede horse at a chariot race. Argos is quick to show his frustration. He jumps on my chest only to dash behind and jump on my back. I’ve sourced the extensive dog internet, called friends, re-read a few of my dog books and spent a considerable amount of time lying on the floor, eyes closed, analyzing my failures.  I felt stuck, frustrated, unsure. I had expected the final product – a trained puppy – could be created with specific ingredients.

  Perhaps, part of this is due to decades of being a reporter, digging and pushing for information and for access.  As a TV correspondent, my producer nicknamed me ‘bulldozer.’ It’s taken me a while to admit that my strengths as a journalist are not techniques appreciated by a puppy.  A few years ago, I hit a similar wall when my family and I lived in Nepal. The capital Kathmandu was home to more than 20,000 stray dogs. Thirty of these lived on my street. I feared and avoided them. With time many became my walking companions. I learned their habits. Absorbed their wisdom. Fed them. Mutual respect meant I even began to appreciate their nighttime howling.  I let them guide me. Recently, a friend suggested I watch ‘Stray’ a love letter of a documentary filmed in Istanbul that follows the lives of several stray dogs. The camera trails them at dog level but never interferes. Dignified and quiet, gentle but street savvy, the dogs are oblivious to humans’ problems.  It was the balm I needed.

There is no meanness in Argos. No anger. No dislike.  He greets with exuberance every dog and every human and chases every squirrel. He responds to recall most of the time though at times at a slow walk. Argos likes to sit on my feet. Crawl between my legs.  Steal my slippers. He follows me everywhere. Even into the shower. When I take him shopping at Rural King, or Lowe’s, he is a people-magnet. His loose leash has good moments. Yes, he caught the duck and also dug up and ate a goose egg. But it’s also the miniature white butterfly bivouacs that mesmerize him. I love watching him zig zag, leaping, left and right, up and down trying to catch one. So far, they’ve out matched him.

He’s home! Now what?

Elephant-eared Argos on his first morning walk. (c)Donatella Lorch

I’ve remodeled our kitchen. It used to fluidly connect with the dining and living room. Now a medieval 14’-long black plastic wood rampart blocks access. There are three routes to the dining area: a slightly wobbly gate that opens inward; a scissor-jump if you are athletic and taller than my 5’5’’ or a leaping full-body slam if you are Argos, our Rhodesian Ridgeback who joined the family pack when he was eight weeks old. Argos has by far the most practice. As a three-month-old, he had already mastered returning to the furthest and weakest panel with an obsession worthy of a climber attempting to summit K2, the world’s most difficult mountain. He never loses sight of that peak no matter how many times I return him to the kitchen and to his crate. Though in between our four daily walks, our  agility games in the basement, our cuddling and highly supervised house explorations, Argos has multiple loud snoring naps in his blanket covered crate, or just hangs out half in and half out, entertained by the peanut butter basted Kong or his vast number of wooden sticks he’s found in the woods.

    I found Argos late last year, an intricate and complex search stretching from Vermont to Florida. It was as if there was a puppy blight. COVID pets, I learned, are a booming business. There is a country-wide run on dogs. Some animal shelters have seen double the number of requests for dogs since the pandemic hit the U.S. in the early Spring of 2020. Puppies in general, regardless of the breed, were difficult to find. By serendipity, a friend suggested a breeder she knew in Florida. A buyer had just dropped out. If I was interested, the puppy was mine. Welcome Argos.*

Argos Kisses (c)Donatella Lorch

Raising a puppy can be a full-time job. Raising a Ridgeback is trying to harness the wind. My days are guided by the schedule of an exuberant, guillotine-toothed, silky brown four-legged infant velociraptor. At Christmas, at nine weeks, Argos weighed 12 pounds. I easily and frequently scooped him up under one arm. The first week of February, he hit 35lbs. At nine months, he should hover around 90lbs. But mentally he will remain a teenager until his second year. Recently he took to tugging on his six-foot lede, keeping it taut enough for a high acrobatic act. He nipped hands and feet as I walked, chewed shoes, slippers, pulled coats off hangers and grabbed anything possible within reach.

Argos expressing his disapproval (c) Donatella Lorch

             As an 11-year Ridgeback veteran, I thought the second lap would be easier. I had raised Biko from puppyhood onwards across four continents and as an adult he was mellow and obedient. Admittedly my Biko puppyhood memories are rather fuzzy. But I concluded I must have at some level succeeded when a friend nicknamed him “Zen Boy.”  

When 8-week-old Argos was placed in my arms in the frigid dawn of the Food Lion parking lot in Warrenton Va., I thought I had it all under control. Biko had been my best friend since he was 8-weeks old. Before Biko, I had never owned a dog. But I had always ached for one. I grew up in Manhattan and my father went so far as to agree to having parakeets – more than 15 though not all at once. Biko was serendipity. It was 2009, my husband John and I had just moved to Kenya. For some reason I cannot explain, I insisted that the only dog I wanted was a Rhodesian Ridgeback. No one informed me that RRs – big, stubborn, strong – can be a tough road for first time dog owners. At a neighbor’s house, John had watched aghast as the hosts allowed their two RRs to fly unchallenged over guests from couch to couch. “I will not have THAT!” became John’s opening mantra in all our puppy discussions. The puppy, he said, had to be trained.

            In Africa, Ridgebacks were originally identified as a mostly white -owned breed. We named him Biko, after Stephen Biko, a legendary Black South African anti-Apartheid activist and nationalist who was arrested and died from injuries sustained in police custody. Biko’s breeder was a US former Marine and Special Forces soldier. He had served in Afghanistan then turned dog whisperer and trainer of Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherds, both highly intelligent and high energy working dogs. He let Biko join in basic training. My main memory is of climbing a staircase with a squirming 40lbs dog on my shoulders, part of a you-trust-me and I-trust-you exercise. It helped glue our hierarchical friendship. Another mantra? Dog treats were banned.

With Argos, I have relied on a US-based, decade older and more widely sophisticated dog training scene. The COVID era had decimated the intimate group training classes while multiplied YouTube videos covering topics that include biting, pulling, chronic barking, jumping, spazzing, nail clipping, tooth cleaning, what to eat, which commands to use, where to sleep. If the Ancient Greeks had Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Skeptics – the dog whisperers are the new philosophers, intent on teaching you how and why dogs think, act and react. It is a booming business. But the training methods can vary widely. I’ve read and annotated five books, watched scores of videos. Ultimately, I created my own set of rules and regulations blending approaches.

Essential books (c) Donatella Lorch

Stubborn, dominant and a puppy, Argos has taught me that we both need a disciplined daily structure with a respective sanity based on exercise. That translates into walks, games, training, focused mealtime, followed by more walks. At times, I feel I am heading the Olympics for infant canine athletes. The pee schedule is a training backbone. Every time Argos exits his crate, after every meal, it’s a dash for his leash and straight out the kitchen door to a designated lawn area.

  When he was a tiny pup, I woke up twice every night to escort Argos outdoors. One 20F pre-dawn, alone in the house, I exited carrying Argos. Unaware of black ice on the porch, I crashed back-first on the steps. Calling for help was irrelevant. My cell was indoors. The closest neighbor ¾ of a mile away. I stopped shaking. Biko peed. I crated him and then nurtured my back with hot and cold compresses and ibuprofen. My suggestion? Check the weather forecast. Wear warm clothes. Pocket your phone.

           Lessons learned? If he heels and sits magically one day, he may still express his demonic side the next day. I am in an intensive patience class. Especially when Argos tries to prove he is superior, jumping at me, nipping, zooming around me, tugging and leaping forward on the leash, then alternating his plan and digging his back feet and haunches into the ground behind me.

            Essential to my support mechanisms: the five books on dog training I’ve read, noted and underlined; the scores of internet training tips from all the different type of schools; the magically calming no-treat trainer who has taught me how and when to interface with Argos as he pushes back like a canine tsunami and the wisdom and the humor of Facebook’s Rhodesian Ridgebacks Rule group that shares with its members on the spot knowledge, personal experience, advice, compassion and hilarity.

Thunder Duo – Argos has a knack for looking innocent

My gloves are shredded, my hands are dotted red from teeth punctures. I focus on the Tibetan Buddhist monks I met when we lived in Nepal. They emanated calm and kindness and mirth. And I notice Argos’ other side. He is sweetly heart-melting, funny, smart and affectionate. He has no anger, no envy, no hate. He just has to cock his head sideways, wrinkle his velvety forehead and look at me innocently with those brown-green eyes and the battle exhaustion lifts.

  As Biko was for 11 years, Argos is also a teacher. Not the type that is struggling to teach a dog to walk on and off lede, to heel, to lie down, to stay and perhaps the hardest command ever for a human and a dog: to recall. Yet Argos connects with me in other ways. His is kinetic energy, lightning aliveness, instantaneous joy. Through him I learn that training is not just a set of rules and regulations and endless treats. You can’t just baste them all together for a few months and – voila – your dog is perfect. It’s about discipline and repetition. It’s about exploring each other’s emotional worlds.   All those conversations I have with him? Yes, to him they are gibberish. But we both know when its’ time for another walk.

*My Argos is named after Odysseus’ dog. He is the symbol of loyalty, recognizing his master 20 years after he had left for Troy.